A. Kimberley McAllister, Ph.D.
Dr. McAllister earned her PhD in neurobiology from Duke University in the laboratory of Lawrence C. Katz in 1996 after becoming inspired to pursue a research career as an undergraduate at Davidson College in North Carolina. She has pursued neuroscience research for 20 years and has expertise in developmental neurobiology, cell and molecular biology, biochemistry, electrophysiology, electron microscopy, and advanced imaging techniques.
During her graduate studies at Duke, Dr. McAllister investigated the effects of experience and neural activity on brain development. After obtaining her Ph.D. in 1996, Dr. McAllister changed fields in order to learn biophysics and computer programming from a leader in that field, Dr. Charles Stevens.
Dr. McAllister joined the faculty at the Center for Neuroscience and Department of Neurology in January 2000. In the past 15 years, her laboratory has made seminal discoveries about how proteins are transported in brain cells before and during the formation of connections, and has discovered novel roles for immune molecules in brain development and plasticity. For the past 3 years, she has also led a UC Davis RISE team in studying roles for immune molecules in the brain in mediating the effects of peripheral immune dysregulation in contributing to risk for schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder in offspring.
Neurodevelopmental and neuropsychiatric disorders affect 15-20% of our population and account for the largest proportion of disability of any disease, including cancer and heart disease. Remarkably, there have been no successful new classes of drugs developed to treat mental illness in over 50 years. In order to get to the root of these disorders, scientists must understand how connections are altered in the brain and whether there are shared changes in the molecular composition and signaling at synapses in each disorder. Dr. McAllister studies the cellular and molecular mechanisms that regulate neuronal growth and the establishment of connections in the developing brain.
Dr. McAllister’s research is twofold: her projects study how connections are made in the developing brain that lead to function or dysfunction and she examines the relationship between the immune and nervous systems. Her team has developed novel assays that can be used, for the first time, to identify molecular signatures of synapses of known strength which will help identify novel therapeutics for memory loss. In addition, her team is identifying immune molecules whose expression and signaling are altered in the brain in psychiatric disorders in order to develop an entirely new class of drugs and diagnostic tools. Her basic research has the potential for long-lasting impacts on society in leading to significant advancements in knowledge, novel diagnostics, and life-altering therapies.
Research Program Details
Because we are constantly able to learn new things, our brains are also always changing through the formation, stabilization, and elimination of connections. Dr. McAllister uses advanced time-lapse imaging to study the way that learning and brain changes, or plasticity, govern the properties of neural connections. Her research aids the growing field of nootropics and may help to enhance function in both healthy and diseased brains.
Dr. McAllister’s lab is one of the few in the world that study the role of immune molecules on neurons in brain development. Her laboratory has found that MHCI molecules limit the connections that are formed in the developing brain and her team is actively studying the mechanisms underlying this effect. By further understanding the way in which the immune and nervous systems are connected, her research may prevent and/or treat neurodevelopmental disorders resulting from either genetic mutations in immune molecules or immune dysregulation.
Dr. McAllister and her team have identified a set of immune molecules in the brain, shared across species, that may contribute to aberrant behaviors and changes in brain form and function linked to schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorders, depression, epilepsy, and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. If successful, Dr. McAllister’s research could help lead the process of developing novel diagnostic tools and therapies to detect psychiatric disorders much earlier than is currently possible and to treat them more effectively.
Dr. McAllister’s laboratory is striving to identify new molecular targets for development of novel diagnostic tools and drug discovery to identify and treat neurodevelopmental and neuropsychiatric disorders earlier and more effectively.